International Day of the Disappeared

30 August 2010 – Today is the International Day of the Disappeared.

In Nepal, over 1350 people disappeared during the time of People’s War at the hands of the army, police, and the Maoists.

The conflict in Nepal is said to be characterised by disappearances. Most of the victims were civilians not taking part in the hostilities.

Not one person has been prosecuted for the grave human rights abuses that took place between 1996-2006 in Nepal.

The Disappearance Bill drafted in Kathmandu, which was approved in late 2009, focuses largely on amnesty and reconciliation. This bill is said to be one of the most debated and worked upon which is yet to be effective.

The parties involved in the peace process have repeatedly made political commitments to establish a National Commission on Disappearances to investigate the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared which is still pending till this day.

It is a duty of the state to  give justice and reparations to all the families of the disappeared. Nepalese political parties should fulfill their commitments and be careful that such tragedies do not occur again.

The Psychosocial Perspective:

I would like to  share some of the research findings from ‘Psychosocial challenges and coping strategies of family members of the disappeared in Surkhet, Nepal‘, the research conducted by Kim van Wilgenburg, Institute for International Health and Development,  Queen Margaret Univeristy. I worked as a researcher & interpreter in this project in 2009.

Not many studies have focused on understanding the psychosocial impact of disappearance on the families of the disappeared. There are some studies done by ICRC, Red Cross and other NGOs like Advocacy Forum, INSEC, etc. on this issue but most of them focus upon legal and political matters rather than the psychosocial issues and the consequences. Studies done in other countries and two in Nepal (by Wilgenberg and Robins) signal that there are a range of psychosocial problems that relatives of the disappeared have to cope with.

In our research, the qualitative study was conducted to explore the psychosocial challenges and coping strategies of family members of the disappeared in Surkhet, Nepal. We met 18 families and did 23 semi-structured interviews. Most of the participants were relieved to share their stories and hopeful that this research would help them through the development of psychosocial programmes. They were grateful to us for lending our ears to listen their stories, they received us very well. Enough care was taken not to re-traumatize or cause psychological distress to the study participants with the support of a research assistant who had an experience as a psychosocial community worker.


Many family members  are highly ambivalent in their views about the fate of their relative. Half of the family members interviewed do acknowledge their family member must be dead, while in the same interview they would express great hope of a return. The majority of participants reports that the reason that hope still exists is that they have not seen the dead body with their own eyes. They demand “Sash ki Lash”. This is the greatest pain of not knowing what to believe and coming in terms with the reality.

Nearly all the families expressed great difficulties in their because of a lack of economic resources. The main problem faced in the daily life is reported to be the fulfilment of the family’s basic needs and the children’s education. It is difficult, esp. for the wives who have the children. Some of them are even mistreated and ignored by the family as a burden. I remember one such incident in which when we met the in-laws they said the daughter-in-law went away from the house after the husband disappeared. The father-in-law was saying she had a bad character. Later, we managed to the wife of the disappeared and when we talked with her, she said actually her in-laws and family made it difficult to stay with them and wanted to claim the reparations. She was forced to leave the house, she was staying separately with her children in a house built on the small piece of land given to her by her parents. She is now working and live on daily wages.

Social isolation is the major social problem for the families of the disappeared. At the time of insurgency this was caused by a lack of security. Missing people would have been arrested or abducted because of a (suspected) political affiliation with in most cases the Maoist. This caused a big problem for the families of the missing because people were afraid to help them since there was a risk of being alleged to support the Maoists as well. The incident of  disappearance also put some kind of label upon the families which made society see them as distinct.

The families report of experieving high levels of psychological distress- worry, thoughts and a general feeling of anxiety. Other characteristics of distress described are loss of appetite, sleepless nights, dreams and excessive thoughts. Some mothers and wives have mentioned they would not mind dying which put them in risk of suicide. Recent studies have shown the rising trends of committing suicide among the women. Some family members also reported the symptoms of psychological disorders mentioning their mind did not work properly in the past, or does not sometimes.


The families have reported various coping strategies to deal with their problems. Only few coping strategies were mentioned by participants that deal directly with the factors causing distress (not knowing the whereabouts of a missing relative, the social problems or economic difficulties). Most coping strategies are an attempt to alleviate the emotional distress that results from the problems.

The families are actively involved in tracking the information about their family member who has disappeared through various sources. They say this helps them to some extent rather than not knowing anything at all. The most common way mentioned to solve economic problems besides working harder themselves, is by receiving support from the family and friends. Social support is a crucial factor in coping after such incidences. It gives them strength and hope. The ways of coping psychological distress is by maintaining their hopes, diverting the attention to other things/thoughts by engaging in activites that absorb their present attention. Some of the family members have also coped by political activism, being actively engaged in the process of fighting for the rights and justice.  Sharing with other people has been pointed out to be of great support for many reasons.

One of the main method of coping is by drawing upon the religious and spiritual resources like visiting temples, praying and making offers. Another way of coping related to religion and spiritual resources is thinking of the fact that it was predestined to happen like it did. Beliefs in fatalism  and taking the happening as prewritten by the hands of God has helped to lessen the pain and carry on with their lives.

Most men mentioned drinking alcohol as a way of coping without being asked about their drinking habits. They said drinking helped forget the pain and helped them with the sleeplessness. One elderly said, “I don’t have to drink during the day because I am busy at work but what do I do at night, there is no option other than drinking.” Drinking might be helpful to some extent but it could be the source of other problems in the long run.

The Need for psychosocial support:

This research shows that there is an urgent need for psychosocial support for the families of the disappeared, esp. the women and the wives because they are the suffering the most. In most parts of Nepal, there is a lack of human resource to help the people who are facing different kinds of psychosocial problems. People who have seen the effective intervention of psychosocial counsellors in real life cases know about the importance of such services. During our fieldwork, one key informant told us about his experience how the psychosocial counselor had helped the person recover his psychological well-being. He said, “At first, I did not know much about the importance and usefulness of such services but when I witnessed a case recovering his mental well-being who had almost lost his mind. I am aware of its usefulness since that time and I refer such cases to professionals.” Many people in the rural areas need to be sensitized about the possible psychosocial problems and how to seek the help. NGOs providing psychosocial counseling and clinical services need to coordinate with the local NGOs to provide services in those areas to gain wider geographical coverage and also, there is a need of strong networking to establish the referral systems to send severe cases to the Kathmandu.

The Short film:

Purnimaya Lama’s husband, Arjun Lama, was taken by the Maoists on 19th April 2005. Witnesses say he was held for 2 months and killed. Despite Purnimaya’s campaign for justice, the police have failed to arrest anyone for Arjun’s killing.

This film was made in Nepal to coincide with the International Day of the Disappeared 2010. The film features one woman’s story of her loved one who was kidnapped.

Video and Photography by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, produced by Kari Collins for Amnesty International.


NepaliTimes Features

The disappeared and the disquiet of those left behind (Latest) by Robert Godden, Amnesty International.

Stolen lives by Ram Kumar Bhandari , chair of the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing (NEFAD).

Disappeared – FROM ISSUE #484 (08 JAN 2010 – 14 JAN 2010)
Without a trace – FROM ISSUE #450 (08 MAY 2009 – 14 MAY 2009)
Vanishing hope – FROM ISSUE #466 (28 AUG 2009 – 03 SEPT 2009)
The long, long wait – FROM ISSUE #409 (18 JULY – 24 JULY 2008)
How can we forget? – FROM ISSUE #389 (29 FEB 2008 – 06 MARCH 2008)
“For lasting peace, we must deal with the missing” – FROM ISSUE #351 (01 JUNE 2007 – 07 JUNE 2007)


The missing

Simon Robins: Humanitarian practitioner and researcher with an interest in transitional justice, humanitarian protection and human rights.

Appeal for Action: Truth, justice and reparations for disappearances in Nepal

Note: The discussion of the research results in this post heavily borrows from the thesis report prepared by Ms. Wilgenberg.

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